With Particular Reference to Act Two, Scenes Four and Five of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Discuss How Shakespeare Presents the Nurses Character to the Audience.
In every good play, there must be a comical character. The Nurse is very good at playing this role in Romeo and Juliet. As the play is a romantic tragedy, it does need some humour, to ‘lighten the air.’
In the Heinemann Educational Books edition of Romeo and Juliet, there is a short description of the Nurse. It says ‘The Nurse is the privileged old servant, devoted to Juliet, prompt to venture an opinion whether called for or not, to speak home truths to the master of the house, to help herself to food in the pantry and no doubt to aqua vitae as well, Her long garrulous account of Juliet’s weaning is admirably and vividly authentic. It reveals her professional pride, her struggle to preserve the properties in the face of lapses which she excuses with ‘God save the mark’, her side-slipping into irrelevances, her complacent self-esteem yet occasional trite humility, and her relish for her late husband’s course jest.’
We first meet Nurse in Act One, Scene Three. Even, her first line gives us an idea of how nonsensical and coarse she is; ‘Now by my maidenhood -at twelve year old-/ I bade her come.’ (Lines 3-4). This is basically telling the audience that she was still a virgin at the age of twelve. Seeing as the question asked by Lady Capulet was ‘where’s my daughter?’ (Line 1), this does seem totally irrelevant.
Still in the first scene, when Nurse is told the age of Juliet, she starts to ramble, and we learn a great deal about her life. This maybe to tell us a little about the Nurses history, and also to show how irrelevant her speech can sometimes be. For example, we learn that the Nurse was hired as a ‘wet nurse’ to Juliet, and was done so as her own child was lost as a baby. Also, in this speech (lines 16-48) she includes many sexual connotations. For example ‘When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple/ of my dug,’ (lines 30-31), quite inappropriate to talk about her ‘nipple’ in front of her employer and a young lady. Again, in her next speech (lines 50-57) ‘A bump as big as a cockerels stone’ (line 53), (stone meaning testicle) and also, ‘Thou wilt fall backward when thou comest to age’ (line 56) At this point even Juliet feels she needs to say something to Nurse to silence her, in fear of further embarrassment brought among herself. However, she continues to make crude jokes, ‘No less, nay bigger; women grow by men.'(Line 95)
The Nurse tells the audience her great dream is to see Juliet wedded and bedded. ‘ And I might live to see thee married once, / I have my wish.’ (Lines 61-62)
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The audience then, would have probably been shocked by the Nurses uncouth behaviour, but at the same time, amused. It was very unusual for someone of the Nurses ‘status’ to speak so crudely to someone of Lady Capulet’s status, especially since she was her employer, and it was all said in front of a child.
It is portrayed that Nurse does like the fact that she has the privilege to work with such a high-class family. In Act One, Scene Five, Nurse says ‘Her mother is the lady of the house, / And a good lady, and a wise and virtuous. / I nursed her daughter that you talked withal.’ (Lines 110-112)
The main scenes, in which we get to know a little bit more about the Nurse, are Scenes four and five in Act Two. The line ‘If you be he sir, I desire some confidence with you.’ (Act Two, Scene 4, line 112) shows that the Nurse in quite ill educated, as she means to say ‘conference’ instead of ‘confidence’. Even though in this scene, the Nurse is disguised as a ‘fine lady’, her common language gives her away. For example, ‘I pray you sir, what saucy merchant was this that was so/ full of his ropery?’ (Line 129) and ‘Scurvy knave, I am none of his/ flirt-gills, I am none of his skain-mates’ (lines 136-137) She also appears quite violent and rowdy in this scene, again giving her away for a servant, and not a fine lady, ‘I’ll take him down, / an ‘a were lustier than he is, and twenty such Jacks’ (lines 134-135). Again, as in previous scenes, Nurse is inappropriately crude ‘O there is a nobleman in/ town, one Paris, that would fain lay knife aboard.’ (Lines 181-182) However, in this scene, we do see that the Nurse does truly care for Juliet, and gives her word of warning to Romeo. ‘But first let me tell ye, if ye/ should lead her in a fool’s paradise, as they say, it were a very/ gross kind of behaviour, as they say; for the gentlewoman is/ young, and therefore if you should deal double with her, / truly it were an ill thing to be offered to any gentlewoman, / and very weak dealing.'(Lines 147-152)
In the lines 179-186, the Nurse mainly spouts a load of nonsense. ‘Doth not rosemary and Romeo begin/ both with a letter?’ (Lines 185-186). She completely changes the subject halfway through her train of thought. This again may be a giveaway of her stupidity. This also shows the way her mind works. How she starts to talk about one thing, and then completely changes the subject. This is a common theme for Nurse throughout the play.
Throughout this scene, the audience would go through several different emotions. Embarrassment, caused by the Nurses crudeness, humour, caused by Nurses stupidity and compassion towards the nurse, as it is clear that she does care a lot for Juliet.
In Act Two, Scene Five, the Nurse appears to be enjoying teasing Juliet. ‘I am aweary, give me leave a while. / Fie how my bones ache, what jaunt have I?’ (Lines 25-26) and ‘Jesu, what haste! Can you not stay a while? / Do you not see I am out of breath?’ (Lines 29-30) She enjoys her power over Juliet. She postpones giving Juliet Romeo’s message not only to indulge in teasing her,
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but also to keep her in the centre of interest, and to savour the power that Juliet’s urgent pleadings confer on her.
Nurse often starts to answer a question, but then somehow changes the subject, ending up with a steam of nonsensical speech. ‘Romeo? No, not he. Though his face/ be better than any man’s, yet his leg excels all men’s; and for a/ hand, and a foot, and a body, though they be not to be talked/ on, yet they are past compare. He is not the flower of courtesy, / but ill warrant him, as gentle as a lamb. Go thy ways wench, / serve God. What, have you dined at home?’ (Lines 38-43) Then when Juliet asks the Nurse again what Romeo had said, she says that she has a sore head. The time she had taken to tell her how sore her feet were, and to describe how handsome Romeo was, she could have explained what Romeo had said. This is another main characteristic of the Nurse.
Here I feel the audience would, by now, be feeling intolerant of the Nurse. This is one of the most important moments of her life, and the audience would relate to this, as the most important thing for a young woman at that time was to find a husband, and the Nurse is taking pleasure in keeping vital information from her, that could change her life.
In Act Three, Scene Five, again we see a softer side of the Nurse. ‘God in heaven bless her. / You are to blame my lord to rate her so.’ Even though she might loose her job, which she so highly prises, she does stand up for Juliet. This shows either great courage, or great stupidity.
In this scene, this is the only time we see Nurse giving her advise to Juliet. ‘ I think it best you married with the County.’ (Line 217) Even thought this is not what Juliet wants to hear, it does seem the most sensible path to follow. However, this is not the route she chooses in the end. It is clear here, that the Nurse often looks for the easy way out of things, even though they may not always be the right way.
She continues with ‘I think you are a happy in this second match, / For it excels your first; or if it did not, / Your first is dead, or ‘t were as good he were, / As living hence, and you no use of him.’ (Lines 223-226) Even though she is trying to make Juliet feel better about Romeo’s banishment, she somehow comes across as being completely unsympathetic. By suggesting that everything is fine, as she has a better ‘back-up’, she has made Juliet even more upset that she was before. This is shown when Juliet ironically says ‘Well though hast comforted me marvellous much.’ (Line 229)
Here, I think the audience would feel sympathy for Juliet. She is obviously very upset, and the Nurse only appears to be making matters worse.
Overall, I think that the Nurse was created as a character to influence an air of humour in the play. She is not put there to be liked, as she has a certain number of characteristics. But I feel that she could be many audience members favourite character. Being so crude and irritating, she is certainly funny, and it is humorous to watch the other characters reactions to her
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characteristics. She plays no major part in the plot of the story, except for occasionally causing more than necessary upset to Juliet. But, it is clear from the first time we meet her, that she does deeply love and care for Juliet, and its only her stupidity, not her will, to make Juliet upset.